Oregon Professor on Sexual Abuse
Picture courtesy: www.uoregon.edu. As per Prof. Jennifer Freyd, harassment victims often experience three phenomena – betrayal trauma, betrayal blindness and institutional betrayal.
Opinion Jan 30, 2018

People who have faced sexual harassment even once in their life will agree to the fact that it takes a lot of courage to take a step forward and accept what they have been through. Even the thought of their harasser’s retaliation is sometimes enough to send chills down their spine. Many of them even fear being stigmatized by the society, losing their jobs, experiencing conflicts in personal relationships, and facing the blame. Most of these fears and worries are true because people who have been through sexual harassment agree that it is a big threat to a person’s well-being as it puts the livelihood at stake.

In a recent interview with the CNN, University of Oregon’s psychology professor Jennifer Freyd shed light on the fact that in addition to the economic and social toll sexual harassment takes on the afflicted, there is an invisible psychological impact too.

Freyd, who has authored the book “Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse,” has dedicated over two decades of her life in researching the effects of sexual harassment. Her work is often cited in the media and has been the foundation for many new programs and initiatives aimed to help people in distress due to sexual harassment. In this book, she has penned down her thoughts on how someone can forget an event as traumatic as sexual abuse in childhood, and why it is necessary for survival.

The invisible psychological impact of sexual harassment

“Few people know how to recognize the mental health issues that happen after harassment,” said Freyd in the interview, mentioning that the effects of anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may not show up for years. She even cited that people often bury the associated thoughts and try not to think about them, but then they keep getting reminded of it occasionally.

According to her, “Harassment victims often experience three phenomena, namely betrayal trauma, betrayal blindness and institutional betrayal.” Elaborating it further, she described that betrayal trauma can be an outcome of harassment of the victim by a boss or a mentor in the name of a positive relationship. She also mentioned that betrayal trauma leads to betrayal blindness, wherein a victim intentionally looks the other way to prevent confronting the feelings of betrayal. “This gets linked to institutional betrayal when an organization or company where the abuse or harassment is happening, does not take any step to prevent or end it,” she mentioned.

Even her book talks about her breakthrough theory explaining the phenomenon of forgotten abuse and how psychogenic amnesia not only happens, but if the abuse occurred at the hands of a parent or caregiver, is often necessary for survival. This book has also given besieged professionals, harassed abuse survivors, and the society a new, clear understanding of the lasting effects of child abuse and how one can deal with it.

Freyd’s theory has gained worldwide attention ever since and has opened new avenues for helping women process and share stories of sexual harassment. With her guidance, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Foundation created a series of “self-care guides” to encourage people to seek true healing by journaling their experiences and leading by example. This series has become very popular and has changed the lives of many survivors. Freyd’s open letter to the administration and trustees of Stanford University was another classic example of her firm belief in the concept of institutional betrayal, and how it continues to exist in our society in spite of numerous efforts to put an end to it. The list of her credits goes on.

The need of the hour

Has sexual harassment now become much more common than ever? Not really! It has been a part of our society for ages, with the only difference in the increase in the number of cases being reported or brought to the fore today. A lot of credit for this goes to people who have led and continue to lead by example by revealing how their lives were affected by the unwanted sex-related advances they had to face from people who seemed to be their well-wishers but were actually beasts eyeing upon their preys.

Most of these people are proud survivors today who have learnt with time to deal with the challenges and the associated trauma. Kudos to their strength, willpower, perseverance and their faith in themselves and the care and comfort of their loved ones that helped them convert their challenges into stepping-stones. However, we must not forget that they had a long journey to sail through before reaching where they are today. And in journeys like that, researchers and activists like Jennifer Freyd have had and will continue to play a pivotal role.


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